Mike Johnston

WHL hammers Winterhawks for undisclosed “player benefit violations”

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The Portland Winterhawks are being punished for what the Western Hockey League calls a “series of player benefit violations which have occurred over the past four seasons.”

The league announced today that the Winterhawks will be barred from participating in the first five rounds of the 2013 bantam draft and will forfeit their first-round picks in the following four drafts.

GM/head coach Mike Johnston has also been suspended for the balance of the 2012-13 season, plus the playoffs.

In addition, the organization has been fined $200,000.

“Our independent investigation in this case revealed there were multiple violations over an extended period for player benefits that are not permitted under WHL Regulations and were not disclosed to the WHL,” said league commissioner Ron Robison in a statement.

“It should also be noted through the course of the investigation there was no evidence of any payments or enhanced education benefits provided to players that would be contrary to WHL Regulations as previous media reports indicated.”

No specifics of the violations were disclosed in the announcement; however, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that the league’s investigation did not uncover any “irregularities” with regards to the club’s recruitment and acquisition of top prospect Seth Jones.

The sanctions come in the wake of a dramatic turnaround for the Winterhawks. When Johnston took over early in 2008-09, he inherited a team that had won just 47 games in the previous three seasons. Fast forward to the present and the team is coming off back-to-back appearances in the WHL finals.

Recent first-round NHL picks out of Portland:

2010: Ryan Johansen, 4th overall by Columbus
2010: Nino Niederreiter, 5th overall by NY Islanders
2011: Sven Baertschi, 13th overall by Calgary
2011: Joe Morrow, 23rd overall by Pittsburgh
2012: Derrick Pouliot, 8th overall by Pittsburgh

Update (4:25 p.m. ET):

The club has released a statement outlining the violations that it’s been found to have committed.

—- A player contract signed in 2009, involving flights for the player’s family and a summer training program
—- Over the last five years, seven families were provided flights 2-4 times per season based on financial need and their distance from Portland
—- Twice in the last five years the team paid for two players to each have a one-week summer training regimen
—- The Winterhawks provided a cell phone for its team captain for a period of three seasons

Not surprisingly, the club feels the punishment is overly harsh.

“After fully cooperating with the league’s investigation, we were extremely surprised at the excessive nature of the sanctions, and we don’t feel they are in line with the scope of the violations we were found to have committed,” Johnston said in the release.

“We believe that apart from recruiting trips and parents’ weekend, there is no prohibition in the rules governing flights for players’ parents, which were the majority of the infractions. We are currently exploring our options on how we will proceed. Despite our objections, the league has made its decision, and our players will continue to pursue the goal of winning a WHL championship.”

Image of Mike Johnston via winterhawks.com

With ‘no expectations’ for Franzen or Vitale to play, Wings aren’t worried about cap situation

Detroit Red Wings v Edmonton Oilers
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At first glance, Detroit’s current financial situation isn’t good. Petr Mrazek’s recent two-year, $8 million extension pushed the payroll to nearly $78 million, well over the $73M ceiling for next season.

But there is a catch.

“Certainly we have no expectations that [Johan] Franzen and [Joe] Vitale are playing hockey this year,” GM Ken Holland said Wednesday, per MLive. “I talked to Vitale after we traded (for) him. He’s having on-going issues with concussion.

“He certainly not expecting to be in camp. I’m not expecting to see Johan Franzen on the ice.”

Vitale, acquired from Arizona as part of the Pavel Datsyuk deal at the draft, carries at $1.16 million cap hit. Franzen, who played in just two games last year while dealing with concussion issues of his own, carries a $3.95M hit.

Putting those two on long-term injured reserve would almost get Detroit right back into cap compliance. Holland can also exercise a similar option with Teemu Pulkkinen, who underwent shoulder surgery this offseason (and makes $812,500).

Thing is, cap compliance isn’t all Holland wants to accomplish.

Though he re-signed Danny DeKeyser to a big six-year, $30 million contract earlier this week, Holland still wants to add to his blue line. The Wings have a surplus of forwards, and Holland has said he’d “love to get a top-three defenseman” prior to the start of next season.

A top-three defenseman will undoubtedly cost a fair bit of money. Which means a fair bit of money would need to go the other way in return.

Detroit has reportedly spoken to Anaheim about acquiring Cam Fowler. Fowler, 24, would be a good fit — he’s got a very reasonable contract ($4 million annually through 2018), the type of money the Wings could bring aboard if they were to part with the likes of, say, Gustav Nyquist ($4.75 million through 2019).

The catch, of course, is that the asking price for defensemen is sky high. It cost the Oilers Taylor Hall to get Adam Larsson out of New Jersey, and there are teams like Boston — still desperately searching for a “transitional” defenseman — that have publicly stated the acquisition cost is steep.

So while Detroit might not be worried about its cap situation for next season, it has to be concerned about having what it takes to upgrade the defense.

Related: Blues GM says he might just keep Kevin Shattenkirk

 

With Peters re-signed, ‘Canes ready to snap playoff drought

Bill Peters
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It’s been an exciting offseason in Carolina.

Now the team is equally excited about the season at hand, and the prospect of making the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

“We think we’re right there,” GM Ron Francis said on Tuesday, in announcing head coach Bill Peters’ contract extension through 2019. “We want to get in the playoffs, and we want to have success around here.”

Hired with little fanfare two years ago, there’s a sense Peters has finished the unglamorous dirty work in shaping the team, and teaching players how he wants the game to be played.

Now is the time to see the fruits of his labor.

In his first season behind the bench, the former Mike Babcock assistant was working with an expensive, older, mediocre group that included the likes of Alex Semin, Eric Staal, Tim Gleason and John-Michael Liles. The group wasn’t especially inspiring, and all the guys mentioned are now gone.

Next season, the ‘Canes project to be a different lot.

They’ll boast a young, dynamic group of players aged 24 or younger: Justin Faulk, Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm, Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin, Teuvo Teravainen, Noah Hanifin and Sebastian Aho, to name a few.

These are all a positive changes for Peters, who is clearly a coach on the rise. He was named the bench boss for Team Canada at the world championships, and led the country to gold. This fall, he’ll reprise his role as Babcock’s assistant for Canada at the World Cup of Hockey.

“When you go back a couple years ago, there were a lot of questions about who we had hired,” Francis explained. “[Peters] wasn’t really well known, but in the two years he’s been here, he’s done a tremendous job.”

Put it all together, and it’s easy to see why optimism in Carolina is so high. Though the roster will be young next year, it’s absolutely loaded with talent and there’s good reason to believe they’ve got the right coach to lead the group.

If there is one thing that could dampen enthusiasm, though, it’s the club’s goalie situation.

Francis made the curious move of bringing Cam Ward back on a two-year deal, resurrecting the Ward-Eddie Lack tandem that struggled at times last season.

Peters was extremely patient and protective of his netminders during that spell, but with expectations raised, that tone might change.

Yzerman knows Bolts have ‘to be under the cap at some point,’ so Callahan (hip) could open on LTIR

Steve Yzerman
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It might feel complex, but the financial situation in Tampa Bay is actually straightforward — GM Steve Yzerman has roughly $5-$6 million in cap space, with forward Nikita Kucherov and d-man Nikita Nesterov still to sign.

And Yzerman thinks he has a way to get ’em done.

“We’ve got to be under the cap at some point,” Yzerman said, per the Tampa Bay Times. “Depending on the health of players, Ryan Callahan had surgery and if he’s not ready to to start the season, that buys us some time.

“We can do that (long-term injured reserve) if we need to. At some point, we’re going to have to be cap compliant to start the season, there’s no way around it.”

Callahan underwent major hip surgery in late June, and was expected to miss the next five months of action. He’s already been ruled out of competing for Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey, and now it sure sounds like his absence will extend into the regular season.

Which could suit the Bolts just fine.

While they’ll miss Callahan’s presence, the temporary relief of his $5.8 million cap hit could allow Yzerman to take care of Kucherov and Nesterov now, and figure out the finances later.

Trades at the end of the preseason/start of the regular season are commonplace, especially with teams looking to get cap compliant. Last year, in a mid-September deal, Chicago was forced to flip Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom to Carolina in order to sign Marcus Kruger.

Of course, Kucherov is going to demand significantly more money than Kruger did from the ‘Hawks.

The Times floated the idea of Filip Forsberg‘s new contract in Nashville — six year, $36 million — as a potential comparable, which could mean Yzerman will be forced to trade a fairly noteworthy contributor, not just a couple of spare parts.

Names that have been floated include veteran centers Valtteri Filppula and Brian Boyle. Yesterday’s signing of promising pivot Vladislav Namestnikov suggests the team thinks Namestnikov is ready to assume a larger role down the middle, making Filppula and/or Boyle expendable.

Preds sign veteran d-man Matt Carle for one year

TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 15:  Matthew Carle #25 of the Tampa Bay Lightning stretches in the warm-up prior to playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on December 15, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Lightning defeated the Leafs 5-4 in overtime. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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Bought out by the Tampa Bay Lightning, defenseman Matt Carle has landed in Nashville on a one-year deal worth $700,000.

The Predators announced the signing today. Carle, 31, will join what’s considered one of the best blue lines in the NHL, led by P.K. Subban and Roman Josi.

Carle played 64 games for the Lightning last season, plus 14 more in the playoffs. But his ice time fell dramatically, to the point he logged under 10 minutes in each of the Bolts’ final three postseason games.

In Nashville, Carle will bring over 700 games of NHL experience, plus two trips to the Stanley Cup Final, to a team that just traded its captain, Shea Weber, and also bought out veteran defenseman Barret Jackman.

In fact, of the eight Preds d-men under contract, only Carle is over 30. The next oldest is Subban, who’s 27.